The Air China Blues

Occasionally in life we encounter situations and things that are so bewildering, so opposite of what they are supposed to be, so absurd and illogical that all we can do is laugh. No, I’m not referring to Ann Coulter’s “writings” or Bush’s latest judicial or commission appointments, but rather to my recent experience flying Air China. I’d been warned about Air China before, but I arrogantly rejected advice that I fly instead on Thai Air. (Actually, Thai Air was sold out so I didn’t have a choice.)

I think everyone should fly a local PRC carrier at least once, just to understand how different things are over here. Maybe then you would believe me.

Last week, as Chinese New Year began, I had no choice but to fly business class out of Beijing on Air China. Luckily I got a very good deal, but it was still costly; my one consolation was knowing that I could relax and enjoy superior service and comfort. How could I have been so hopelessly naive?

I am almost reluctant to post about this debacle, because words can’t really capture the full spectrum of horrors that I witnessed. And chances are no one will believe me, it’s too absurd. All I can say is that it is totally true, scout’s honor.

It started the instant I arrived at the airport. Anticipating heavy traffic to the airport and long lines, I arrived diligently early only to see that there was virtually no service, no one to help, no one to ask questions to at the Air China counters. Several other early arrivers appeared distraught and bewildered, and tried to get answers from the uniformed airport staff walking by, but no one knew, no one had any answers. (It brought back ominous recollections of my recent experience at a Chinese bank.) We formed two lines at the two designated counters for business class travellers, each marked with the red carpet intended to indicate superior service and preferential treatment for those who have paid extra money for their tickets. That’s what I used to think those red carpets meant. At Air China, they are strictly for show.

We ended up waiting there for nearly two hours, totally ignored, before the real madness began. Meanwhile, on either side of the exclusive business class lines, throngs were forming for the economy and tour group counters. Everyone was asking why there was no one to process our tickets, what we were supposed to do. Finally some Air China staff materialized and they began taking tickets — but only from the Economy and Tour Group lines. Business class was ignored. One evil-looking lady just sat on a stool behind the counter scowling and stamping a huge pile of documents. One of the business class passengers had the temerity to walk up to her and ask if there was anyone to help us. At this, the stamper shrieked back at the top of her lungs in a voice that would frighten the doves. I don’t know what she said, but her shrieks went on long and loud. I swear, it was like a parody of the old Soviet scenario of the peasants begging for bread while some bureaucrat, sitting in front of mountains of wheat, kept stamping papers and refusing to let the starving masses have any food. Meanwhile the Economy and Tour Group lines were moving along, slowly but at least going forward.

The two business class lines began to disintegrate as we all realized this was not going to be your everyday “red carpet” experience. People began to flee the red carpets to get onto the Economy line. One European man went running into the hall, frantically halting anyone in a uniform and screaming for help. I watched as everyone he asked basically told him to go to hell. I was the very first on my red-carpet line and I stood my ground, unwilling to start all over, after my two-hour-plus wait. Finally, a frazzled, exhausted and confused-looking woman came out and walked to one of the business class counters. With this, the mobs surged forward and it was absolutely every man for himself. There was no pretense of any politeness or order. Total anarchy as the elite passengers clamoured for this overwhelmed woman to help us get our boarding passes. Luckily I was up front and was able to force my ticket into her hands. There was no hello, no smile; her face showed only a why-are-you-doing-this-to-me look of horror. I thought back to my recent flight on Cathay Pacific, an exercise in elegance, and I wondered again why I ever left Hong Kong. As I walked away clutching my coveted boarding pass, I looked back at the anarchic scene and felt that I had just escaped a true nightmare.

There were thirty minutes left to boarding, and I made my way, trembling and exhausted, to the “business class lounge.” Another assault to the senses, the lounge was dingy, messy and joyless. The only English-language publication on the racks was a dog-earred Air Canada magazine listing the inflight films for December 2002. I just had to laugh.

On to the gate. There was no call for boarding the plane. Someone just materialized and opened the door and began to take people’s tickets. Again, I witnessed another mob scene that seems to typify the Air China experience. No line, just a swollen mass of helpless people waving their tickets. No call for senior citizens or families with small children, no call for first-class/business travellers, just a free-for-all. Again, I braced for battle and made my way toward the front.

The flight itself was less horrific than the airport insanity — but just a little. The plane’s interior was dirty and yellowed with age, the upholstery of the seats worn and frayed. After handing out the packages of mixed nuts, the attendant never came back to pick up the empty packets, which sat on the passengers’ armrests until after dinner. No one offered to refill our empty water glasses. The food was barely passable; the red wine was literally undrinkable.

I am fully aware that it is not fair to hold China up to the standards held by other more developed countries. I do not expect Air China to deliver what Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific deliver. That said, there is absolutely no excuse for treating passengers like cattle, whether they are business class or any other class. If they are going to have the audacity to offer a business class product at all and demand a lot of extra money for it, have they not the responsibility to give the passenger at least something back (aside from abuse) — if only a bit of respect or kindness?

As I said, words simply cannot evoke the frustration, anguish and nastiness of this experience. I hope I’ve managed to at least give you a hint of what it was like. I can deal with business class being sub-standard or inferior. But nasty? Vicious? Hateful and abusive? No, I don’t think there’s any excuse, and it takes its place as one of my most jarring and unhappy exeriences here to date.

Oh, and in case I failed to make myself clear: If any of you are considering an international flight on Air China, I strongly recommend you reconsider.

The Discussion: 65 Comments

Richard, consider yourself lucky.
When travelling in Shanghai in 1987, I met a guy from Australia who told me about his Air China experience a few days earlier, and I believe his story.

They were well into the flight when first the co-pilot then the pilot came out of the cockpit to look at some sort of problem on the bulkhead or door. Apparently while they were fiddling around they managed to Lock themselves out of the cockpit! That was no problem; they grabbed some sort of fire-ax or tool and chopped/broke their way back in, in front of the astonished(and relieved) passengers.

January 31, 2004 @ 4:19 pm | Comment

No story about Air China can really surprise me, though yours is pretty wild. In the book “The River at the Center of the World,” the author describes his own trip on Air China. There weren’t enough seats for all the flyers, so the staff went into the waiting room and took lose chairs and brought them into the cabin. No seat belts of course, and no bolting. It’s only a shade better today.

January 31, 2004 @ 4:27 pm | Comment

I find this post hilarious. I didn’t have such problems with my flights in China- although they did lose my bag- which flew to somewhere in Xinjiang while I flew to Shenzhen. However, they recovered the bag the following day and couriered it to me within 3 days. I was very impressed.

March 31, 2004 @ 9:15 pm | Comment

I flew again on Air China a few weeks ago, and it was much better than my earlier trip. But I promise, it was not only foreigners who had this problem. Everyone on this flight to Bangkok was furious, Chinese and foreigners alike. And this is not a rumor, this is a personal experience that I went through.

About pulling out stools and having passengers sit on them — I do not know the story you refer to, but if you read the book The River at the Center of the World by Simon Winchester he tells about the exact same thing happening to him. It is not rumor, it is a fact, but it happened many years ago and obviously it has improved as the airline had to meet international safety standards.

Anyway, there’s no need to be so defensive — I just had a terrible trip and I wrote a little story about it.

April 17, 2004 @ 10:03 am | Comment

Why only did the foreigners have such problems? I took Air China quite a few times, and it was pretty okay. At least nothing happened. Of course, I didn’t expect Air China has the same service as SIA or Cathay.

I am not sure about the Aussie flew on air China in 1987. Was it justified to just pull out some non-standard stools or chairs and let the passengers to sit on for the entire journey? Not likely, guess it was cooked-up stories. Just think it this way, surely, if he didn’t have a seat on board, he would not get a ticket with a seat number. In that case, being an Aussie, do you-all think he would fly on it without a proper seat? That’s ridiculous, isn’t it?

I know some Chinese services are not as satisfactory as other developed nations offered. But like someone suggested, just go try once, fly with Air China. I bet most of you will find okay. If it is way below your expectation, then it would be your first-and-last jouney with Air China. Otherwsie, please try a second time and so on. Afterall, it’s inexpensive to fly with Air China.

We welcome critics, but we hate those rumors passed by word-of-mouth.

April 17, 2004 @ 9:57 am | Comment

Since 1991, I’ve been on over 40 Air China flights between LA and Beijing, with 80% flying coach. I’ve also had the good or bad fortune of flying similar routes via United, Continental, JAL, and China Eastern. Air China has been by far the most reliable experience–with very decent (and improving) service and the best prices.

I don’t mean to spew out these numbers as some sort of quasi-statistic meant to convince you of Air China’s superiority, but I do mean to offer my condolences on your horrendous experience. I have had my share of bad airplane experiences through the years, however most have been with “brand name” airlines.

Simply stated, I have been extremely lucky and you have been most extremely unlucky with Air China.

Until they have a JD Powers-esque satisfaction rating for US-China flights (or perhaps they do…if so, my apologies) anecdotal recounting of horror stories shall continue to be the gauge for such.

July 20, 2004 @ 9:31 am | Comment

Henry, I went on later flights that were okay, and last year they improved their business class lounge dramatically. But this was definitely a flight to remember.

July 20, 2004 @ 9:39 am | Comment

I had been Air China no major horror stories inflight. The check in process was taxing cf to Singapore or Malaysia as there is not adequate ground handling facilities. Given the growth rate of Chinese Avatiation the infrastructure is not keeping pace with the growth and it shows!

July 27, 2004 @ 9:03 am | Comment

Just to mention, please do not confuse Air China ( from China ) with China Air ( from Taiwan ).

Air China = China
China Air = Taiwan.

Strange but true, China Air does not fly to China excpet for Hong Kong S.A.R.

July 28, 2004 @ 4:20 pm | Comment

Speaking of China Air and not Air China there are some great horror stories of them, not service related, but safety related, like in 1998 or 99 when an Airbus flying between NYC and Taipei made a mechanical stop in Anchorage and when taxing the pilots took of from the taxiway instead of the runway or the time from a flight from LAX that crashed the damn plane broke the sound barrier on the way down, or the multiple times they crashed into hills in taiwan or another time they lost a 747 going from Tokyo or yet again the taxied the damn plane into Hong Kong harbor at old Kai Tek airport. But if you want a cheap business class seat and don’t mind worrying about the safety record China Air is your airline!

August 10, 2004 @ 2:13 am | Comment

I’ve flown on AC a few times, while I was back in China. All in the economic class. It was… dull. The plane’s pretty old, the service is almost non-existant, and all I got for the 2-hour flight is a packet of nuts, water and nothing to read. It was like taking the bus.

None of the flights were particularly bad, however. Worse than Malaysian Air – which I also used while I was getting there – but not particularly horrifying.

Perhaps it is a matter of different expectations? I just expected to get to Guanzhou, is all.

September 1, 2004 @ 4:36 am | Comment

I refer to Richard’s first posting Feb 9, 2004.
I kind of think that if you have already a sort of filter in your glasses, everything yo see will look like what is on the filter.
I was in particular refering to your saying that you had to wait for service at the counter of Air China with no one appearing to help until nearer the departure time.
Well, that is not unique. I am Dutch, and I have been travelling as frequent as most business travellers whose job is practically travelling 60% of the time. I had to wait at Continental, KLM, Qantas, BA, Air France, almost without exception for the counter to open usually 2 hours before departure. There is absolutely no one at the counter to entertain questions. However, if you are a regualr flyer with the airline, yo can proceed to the frequent flyers lounge to wait.
I dont think Air China is unique in this expereicne of yours.
I have recentlybeen flying with AC very often and I am very impressed. In fact, I hate to say this, I perfer it to KLM, BA, and Qantas, though I have not travelled with Qantas in the last 2 years. It is comparable to Continental’s international flights (not internal US flights).

September 23, 2004 @ 6:11 am | Comment

Peter, I simply don’t believe you. I’ve been flying around the world for the past 15 years, more often than not in business class, on more than a dozen different airlines. Never in my entire life have i ever, ever, ever, encountered anything even close to what I described in this post. If business class on other airlines were as dreadful as you describe no one would be willing to shell out the huge amounts of money they do for it. I’ve flown KLM, United, American, United, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Eva, Continental, Swiss Air and so many others, and I was always treated with graciousness, respect and professionalism every time. Even when it wasn’t business class. Some were better than others, but absolutely none were in any way comparable to the circus of that night. And I spoke with plenty of other passengers who all agreed — they’d never in their lives seen anything like it.

September 27, 2004 @ 7:23 pm | Comment

Hey Guys, I have been flying 38 times of Air China for the past 10 months and I am also the VIP member of the airline. I think the service is not as bad as what Richard had experienced. Though I think it could happen, it was only an independent case. Be honest, the service has been improving – quite a lot.

November 6, 2004 @ 9:52 am | Comment

BC, I’ve said that the service has improved significantly since I wrote this post. The lounge was upgraded, and they seem to have their act a bit more together. Food still sucks, though. And they still have a stampede to get on the plane, with no lines and no pre-boarding.

November 6, 2004 @ 9:53 am | Comment

Talking about Airline, there’s a funny report on NPR today called:{Travel Nightmares: The World’s Worst Airlines}

Listen:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4200929

December 4, 2004 @ 6:24 pm | Comment

China’s customer service is nonexistent… I personally think it has to do with the population problem. When there are too many people around, you tend to get grumpy, and I think the grumpiness associated with the Chinese service industry is largely a historic development.

December 17, 2004 @ 9:26 pm | Comment

I have lived in China for ten years now and have flown often on various Chinese airlines. I can believe Richard’s story, but feel it probably relates more to the airport he was flying from than the airline he was flying with.
The quality of ground services here vary a great deal from one airport to another and the importance of the airport is not a guide to the quality of ground services. My best check-in experience was at Xiamen airport and my worst was at Beijing, with Guangzhou (old airport) a very close runner-up. Having said this though, I must concur with several of other contributors to this thread and say that air travel in China is continuously improving.
Somewhat aside from the main thread: if you want a truly awful check-in experience, try Lagos, Nigeria – it cost me, and everyone else on the flight, US$10 to get our boarding passes from a shady looking guy who did not appear to work for the airline. Also, we were told by the check-in clerk to watch for the pilot heading for the plane as that would be the signal that the plane was leaving. In comparison Chinese airports are pure heaven!

January 23, 2005 @ 2:58 pm | Comment

Thanks for the comment, and I’ll be careful to avoid the Lagos airport. As I said, the last time I flew Air China it was far more pleasant and the lounge was greatly improved (and I’m talking about in Beijing). Still, the experience that day was the most terrible I’ve had in my many years of international travel.

January 23, 2005 @ 3:01 pm | Comment

I can only say that my first experience flying into Nanning China in1999 on some large airline was that the words on the back of every seat on the plane was spelt wrong in big three inch letters saying,
“Back Feat, Back Feat”. I wonder if they ever changed it?

January 24, 2005 @ 5:45 am | Comment

I traveled by Air China once , to Guangzhou. It was ok but the shoe prints on the toilets was very funny. It seems that many Chinese won’t sit on the toilets in the plane. They treat it like a squat toilet and stand on the toilet then squat down! It left permanent shoe prints on the johns, haha.
I taught at BUAA Bei Hang Univ in BJ. It has a school for pilots with China Southern or(Southern China?)airlines. Anyway it is interesting to note the way they chose their pilots. They go to Middle School and look for the tallest boys with the best eyesight and that’s it!! They are in the program. Test scores, not important, intelligence, not important, height=important (face),looks=important (face),eyesight=important (not face but needed) in that order too. The boys told me this. Then they go to Australia to really learn how to fly. China doesn’t have enough open empty spaces to allow training pilots to crash but Australia does! Most of the boys I taught didn’t really want to be in this program they just wanted to be regular Univ, students but since most of them didn’t have high scores in middle school this might be their only chance for better employment. They also told me that the pay isn’t so great. But most of the boys are nicer and less nationalistic then the regular students I taught in other classes at BUAA.

February 26, 2005 @ 11:29 pm | Comment

the china southern pilots train in my home city (perth, australia). they definitely need the margin for error that can only be provided by wide_open_spaces.

i haven’t found air china to be too bad so far. the english translations in their inflight mag is particularly good entertainment. “Low Key Arrogance” was the heading of an interior design pictorial that they featured mid last year!

March 3, 2005 @ 1:29 am | Comment

I have had the pleasure of both Air China and China Air flights.

China Air from LAX Taibei, Taibei to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Taibei, and Taibei to LAX

Air China from LAX to Beijing, Shanghai to Nagoya, Nagoya to Beijing, and Beijing to Nagoya

This has all been within the last 14 months or so.

China Air has a horrible safety record and we had air turbulance for a good 9 hours straight till they decided that they should fly higher. The food was so-so, the movie sucked, the seats were cramped, the service was very slow if they even bothered to come, and the music consisted of the same 10-tracks over and over again.

Air China on the other hand has been nothing but a pleasure to fly. I just go for the cheapest tickets, I don’t expect anything but to arrive at my destination when I fly. For international flights, they will start serving a meal almost immediately after take off with a choice of Chinese food or the food of their departure/destination. I have never gotten the “foreign” food, only the Chinese food, and it is actually pretty good. The wine isn’t the best, but it’s decent. The seats actually have legroom as well. The movies still suck, and the music is outdated, but I usually either just sleep or chat with the Chinese around me. The seating works like it does on the trains… it doesn’t matter where you sit as long as you have a ticket, the only people who seemed to be upset about it were the Japanese who didn’t pay for business class.

What I have noticed is that if you expect western standards, you are going to have to pay western prices for them. I am just happy that the plane doesn’t crash and arrives at the destination. For me, everything else is bonus when I am paying $250 for an international ticket.

March 25, 2005 @ 11:22 am | Comment

I had paid for a full-priced business class ticket on Air China. I would have expected them to treat us a bit better than they would an animal.

That said, as I’ve mentioned before, they have improved considerably since I wrote this poist two years ago.

March 25, 2005 @ 12:10 pm | Comment

Is it possible to fly to China and pick up a ticket reasonably priced from Beijing to Bangkok. I don;t want to pay the $900 for the ticket here and figure I’d probably be able to get one cheaper there. Does anyone have any suggestions about picking up tickets at the airport

March 29, 2005 @ 11:45 pm | Comment

It is MUCH smarter to fly to Bangkok and then book your travel to China. Air fares in Thailand are scandalously cheap, while in China they are expensive.

March 30, 2005 @ 6:44 am | Comment

Last year on an Air China flight from Frankfurt to Shanghai, the flight attendants asked me to swap my economy seat with another’s business seat. Ok, so they wouldn’t really specify why, but who would refuse such an offer? Business class was great compared to economy, but when diner was served, I was told to go back downstairs and eat my economy food there. I refused and told them I preferred business class food. The attendant, obviously annoyed, went away and came back with her colleagues and told me to move. Once again I refused, telling them I wasn’t hungry anymore. They kept pushing and, tired (and hungry) as I was, I finally gave in. They did try to make up for all this trouble though, offering me an extra serving of economy diner. Just wonderful.

April 2, 2005 @ 10:28 am | Comment

When I flew with China Eastern (from Beijing to LAX), there was a 7 to 10 hour block where they didn’t serve food (except for a refrigerated dinner roll wrapped in plastic). Maybe they wanted us to sleep, but our biological blocks still signalled daytime. Anyway, I sat there starving to death, rummaging through my backpack for old coughdrops to chew on. The crew finally fed us 1 hour before we landed.

Since I haven’t flown with any other international airline, I can’t really compare. I do know from my friend that JAL gives out nearly unlimited amounts of Pocky sticks.

April 23, 2005 @ 1:47 am | Comment

Hello fellow flyers,
I’m Barbe, i’m going to experience my first flight with Air China. Could I know the pros of flying with it aside from the cheap prices because there’s a lot of negativity about it from what i’ve heard.
Thanks
-Barbe

May 29, 2005 @ 2:25 pm | Comment

China is, just different. Is yours better or worse than this story?
While sitting on the BJ tarmac, the United Airline captain quietly walked through the whole upper deck and decended on the first class. In best hushed tones, “The plan is on fire. Please leave quietly.”
He was doing a pre-flight check and the panel started smoking. First class was notified first, and five lucky (first class) ones grabbed the last seats on Dragon Air to HKG and returned to LAX on time. The rest stays another day in BJ.
It’s just different. You’re not required to fly in China. Me, I preferred to stay in San Marino, CA.

June 17, 2005 @ 8:06 pm | Comment

If you can show me a similar story to the one I tell above about China Air occurring on any American airline, then I will listen. I have travelled the world many times on just about every airline. I never, ever experienced anything like this. Ever.

June 17, 2005 @ 8:14 pm | Comment

I have never flown with a Chinese airline, as I’ve always managed to get better deals with European airlines to there – and have never travelled so far as to warrant a domestic flight.

There IS however a real problem with customer service in China. Chinese people who work in the support, entertainment, etc sectors really do not know how to smile or be helpful – this applies to Chinese as well as foreigners. I’ve had people walk away from me while I was asking them questions, look at me as if they wanted me to drop down dead, and so forth.

Of course my memories of China are mostly good ones, especially of those people who looked after me. But I think I will avoid the Chinese airlines for a few years yet – unless they have some REALLY good offers. BA and Virgin have some excellent deals, sometimes.

July 14, 2005 @ 6:57 pm | Comment

Taiwan’s China Airlines isn’t even cheap! Frankly, would you fly with an airline’s that’s killed over 900 people? At least Air China won’t kill you! (I still wouldn’t fly it though – unless I was paid quite a bit of money…)

July 19, 2005 @ 8:50 pm | Comment

This post is just way too funny. I couldn’t help laughing hysterically. Boy boy boy, what an experience. I have flown with Air China at least 15 times in the last few years. I have never had any unpleasant experience like this. I feel very sorry for people who had the similiar experience to Richard’s while trying to catch a very important flight. Someone pointed out the population is a main factor contributed to the poor quality service in China. I agree 100 percent. The service in China is improving daily, but the stardard is just not there. It is especially difficult for foreigners.

I have a terrible flying experience as a foreigner in the US. I was on my way from San Francisco to Houston, 20 minutes after the plane taking off, the captain announced that due to mechanical/ Hydaulic problem, the steering wheel was malfunctioning. We needed to fly back to San Francisco, the nearest airport where we could land. Over the next half hour, every minute in the sky seemed too long. We were told there would be two possibilities when plane landed, one was the plane landed in the ocean, the other would be the plane got on fire. I was new to the country back then, I really couldn’t undersatnd much what he was saying. I wish he could repeat in Chinese (English speakers these days are lucky traveling in china, at least someone speaks English to you). I was scared and felt aweful. When we finally approached to the ground, I saw six fire trucks followed us as our plane slided on the runway, there was no single moving object on the ground. I knew then our plane was very dangerous to the ground. How relieved I was when the plane finally hit the ground, that landing was a big bump. I believed that most Americans on that plane were not as fearful as I was, as a foreigner travelling in other country with language barrier, one naturally tends to have more worries than the locals. So I could understand what Ricahard was going through. Is this true that most, if not all, the domestic flights in China speaks dual languages now? That is a luxury comparing to many English speaking countries.

July 24, 2005 @ 11:18 pm | Comment

Yes,Gentlemen,As a Chinese,I feel sorry about your encouter,Actaully Air China is the worst Airline among Chinese Aviation company.I share their service multi times,To tell the truth,They are worst.So please post your protest to Air China. But if you have any opportunity to fly Xiamen Airline or Southern Airline,Maybe you will change your opinion about Chinese Aviation service.

August 13, 2005 @ 4:13 am | Comment

I’ve flown Air China a few times and aside from poor service and mean flight attendants, the flight was smooth. I guess if you can be laid back and not take anything too personal, its worth the cheaper flight. If your flying internationally then I recommend ANA. It is a Japanese airline with great service and food.

August 17, 2005 @ 11:13 pm | Comment

I just flew back to Guangzhou from Chicago via United through HK…
Went over on Air China…Just dreadful: Saw one whole movie though!
UA is starting a flight schedule direct to Guangzhou soon…
Until we hit the bad weather that has muddied up HK it was a great flight…
Very funny post at Davezilla.com on China Southern….

August 21, 2005 @ 8:11 am | Comment

I need help and hope someone can advise me. Due to confision when I deplaned in Beijing after a flght from Vancouver (wheelchair assist) on May 13/05, I misplaced my return ticket (Dec 14/05). I’ve tried to phone AIR CHINA & looked on AC website for directions – no luck re a replaceent ticket. Where do I go from here? If someone can advise I”d be very grateful.

September 5, 2005 @ 2:17 am | Comment

I am coming into this post WAY late but I have to say, Air China’s service is as horrible in their Los Angeles offices as it sounds everywhere else. First of all, we tried to get a flight through Orbitz but were told on the site we had to order the ticket directly from Air China. Finding a number to call was an exercise in frustration, but we finally got their Los Angeles office and I ordered the tickets I saw on Orbitz. The person I spoke to seemed friendly. My flights were LA to SF and on to Shanghai, same route back.

When we go to pick up the tickets, we discover they have booked only SF to Shanghai and Shanghai back to SF. So…I ask them why. I was very explicit in my instructions and flight numbers, and isn’t it simple logic that someone living in Los Angeles would actually FLY out of Los Angeles? We were told that they ordinarily don’t book individual tickets there, and that to change it, we’d have to go to a travel agent. Which is what they should have had us do, in the first place.

Well, we go to the travel agent they recommended, and the agent tells us that every connection from Los Angeles that would work has sold out. Keep in mind, this flight is for Christmastime. So speaking with Air China’s reps, they come up with an alternate route…which now costs almost $200 more. We get on the horn with them and my wife (herself Chinese) insists that they make this right, by eating the difference. They refuse…and actually escalate things to shouting and blaming ME for being the reason the order was screwed up! Yes…a native english speaker screwed up and wasn’t explicit enough to her sales rep, it was totally my fault. I mistakenly expected them to be competent at their jobs. So we outright cancel the tickets and get a refund, and buy tickets with the agent to fly Japan Airlines instead. After two weeks of spamming e-mails to every Air China address I could find, we finally got a letter of upgrade to business class from Air China’s management…one way only. That was the best they could do for all of the headaches they caused.

But Air China isn’t nearly the only bad experience we’ve had on airlines, and it’s not just China. American Airlines gave my wife and her mother, and a ton of touring Chinese people, a nightmare of a time with cancelled flights and a refusal to book them on another connection, and she ended up brokering an arrangement with a partner airline for them, after escalating things to management. My wife is very persistent ๐Ÿ™‚

October 7, 2005 @ 2:31 pm | Comment

I am coming into this conversation really late, obviously…but I have to say, Air China’s service is as horrible in their Los Angeles offices as it sounds everywhere else. First of all, we tried to get a flight through Orbitz but were told on the site we had to order the ticket directly from Air China. Finding a number to call was an exercise in frustration, but we finally got their Los Angeles office and I ordered the tickets I saw on Orbitz. The person I spoke to seemed friendly. My flights were LA to SF and on to Shanghai, same route back.

When we go to pick up the tickets, we discover they have booked only SF to Shanghai and Shanghai back to SF. So…I ask them why. I was very explicit in my instructions and flight numbers, and isn’t it simple logic that someone living in Los Angeles would actually FLY out of Los Angeles? We were told that they ordinarily don’t book individual tickets there, and that to change it, we’d have to go to a travel agent. Which is what they should have had us do, in the first place.

Well, we go to the travel agent they recommended, and the agent tells us that every connection from Los Angeles that would work has sold out. Keep in mind, this flight is for Christmastime. So speaking with Air China’s reps, they come up with an alternate route…which now costs almost $200 more. We get on the horn with them and my wife (herself Chinese) insists that they make this right, by eating the difference. They refuse…and actually escalate things to shouting and blaming ME for being the reason the order was screwed up! Yes…a native english speaker screwed up and wasn’t explicit enough to her sales rep, it was totally my fault. I mistakenly expected them to be competent at their jobs. So we outright cancel the tickets and get a refund, and buy tickets with the agent to fly Japan Airlines instead. After two weeks of spamming e-mails to every Air China address I could find, we finally got a letter of upgrade to business class from Air China’s management…one way only. That was the best they could do for all of the headaches they caused.

But Air China isn’t nearly the only bad experience we’ve had on airlines, and it’s not just China. American Airlines gave my wife and her mother, and a ton of touring Chinese people, a nightmare of a time with cancelled flights and a refusal to book them on another connection, and she ended up brokering an arrangement with a partner airline for them, after escalating things to management. My wife is very persistent ๐Ÿ™‚

October 7, 2005 @ 2:32 pm | Comment

I haven’t had the adventure of flying Air China yet, but probably will sometime soon. I did however have an interesting flight from Singapore to Shanghai with China Eastern at the end of the Chinese National Day holiday this year. About two hours into the flight a passenger suddenly collapsed as he was walking down the aisle. He laid there motionless as several flight attendants nervously hovered around not quite knowing what to do. Finally someone had the sense to make an announcement asking whether a doctor was aboard. Luckily, there was and when the passenger came to he seemed to be fine. There was another incident as we were preparing to land. A gentlemen was standing in an aisle talking to some other passengers when a flight attendant came by and requested he sit down and buckle up. For some reason the guy wouldn’t sit down and some other flight attendants had to come over and force him into his seat. After seating down he continued to insult the flight attendant who lost her cool and started screaming back until one of her colleagues pulled her away. It was pretty dramatic, she was pissed even after we landed. Wierd flight, but nothing compared to some of the others posted above.

October 12, 2005 @ 9:38 am | Comment

I have had the chance to fly Air China on several occassions. On my departure from Vancouver the flight was about 2 hours late. There was no announcement and nobody at the departure gate. No display of a delay on the monitors either. There was a boarding call but with no sense of order or line. People literally pushed to get on. Don’t people know that they have an assigned seat? For those of you who claim to have had a pleasant experience on this airline, I’m rather sceptical. The cabin crew on the flight never smiled. When I asked for a glass of water to take my pills on of them came up to me turned off my call light and walked away. Twice. Finally she came back and asked me “What’s the matter?” I asked for a glass of water. She let out a disgusted sigh and stormed away, returning several minutes later shoving a glass of water in front of me and walking away. I have never experienced this on any other airline. It was not like I wasn’t being polite. In all my travels in China I would highly recommend Hainan Airlines. Their service is on par with some of the “better” carriers like SA and Cathay. I hope they get their act together before the Olympics. They are after all the national carrier of China.

October 29, 2005 @ 11:57 pm | Comment

LOL! i haven’t had such a long laugh reading through these posts. sorry it had to be at your expense, richard. i do believe what had happened to you is true. i think the chinese didn’t really understand what business class meant at that time, other than being more expensive and wider leg room… i also find sheji’s opportunism and steadfastness in the face of incomprehensible chinese service truly hilarious. i mean to insist on good service when you hadn’t paid for it…at least richard did.

December 3, 2005 @ 6:38 pm | Comment

I flew economy class on a non-stop Air China flight from JFK in New York to Beijing last January, and I have no complaints. I’ll be flying the return leg in a few weeks (back to JFK)… if anything strange happens I’ll be sure to post here.

December 28, 2005 @ 3:10 am | Comment

Manning, as noted earlier in the comments, I think they’ve improved. They are less dreadful than they used to be.

December 28, 2005 @ 3:13 am | Comment

Had an awful, nonsensical experience on Air China as well. Our bags were stolen essentially from under our noses, and our tickets were in them. We went to the airport and were told that the tickets couldn’t be reissued with just a service fee even though they could find our reservation in the system (?) and we had to re-purchase the tickets then and there for three times the price we had paid for them originally. We were told this amount would be reimbursed to us as soon as we went to an Air China ticket office, but when we got to the ticket office, we were berated for not just paying the service fee and having the tickets reissued and were told that we never needed to buy the new tickets. You can imagine our chagrin, particularly since the new tickets we were forced to purchase but later told we hadn’t needed to purchase were over $2500. The length of time Air China says it needs to sort out this matter and give us a refund? OVER A YEAR. Even with proof from our travel agent we had previously bought the tickets, the credit card receipt and ticket stubs from the new tickets, etc. If anyone has had a similar problem and knows how to sort this out, I would welcome the input.

January 17, 2006 @ 3:09 am | Comment

will be going to china on southern air china for the first time. what is SA like?

January 22, 2006 @ 3:03 pm | Comment

Hello! didrex http://bbs.ws/bbs.php?bbs=didrex Bye!

February 5, 2006 @ 10:29 pm | Comment

I’m just curious…how many of the people who have spoken of bad experiences flying on Air China speak Chinese?

February 10, 2006 @ 9:54 pm | Comment

Every one of us.

February 11, 2006 @ 2:24 am | Comment

I used to fly Air China all the time between Hong Kong and Beijing. Definitely a different standard in service. I never had anything outrageous happen (or my expectations are lowered from too much time in China). One time there was only one poor overworked lady at the checkin counter to take care of the entire 747 full of people. I still had 100 people in front of me when the official 7:30 AM takeoff time came and went. But I wasn’t worried, as I knew they woudn’t leave without all those people.

Once I was flying business class from Beijing to HK and called to reconfirm my flights on Wednesday for a Saturday morning departure (having arrived on Monday). I was told that I was too late reconfirming. So I spent the next day trying to get a seat, ending up with an economy class seat on the same plane. I figured out what happened when I heard the announcement at takeoff welcoming some mid-level beaurocrat onto the plane. Appears he had decided to take a last minute trip to HK and bumped the whole business class for his entourage.

My preference was for Dragon Air back when it was owned by Cathay Pacific. When they sold out their share to the Chinese government, the standards dropped immediately. They did silly things like change the paper hand towels in the toilets over to facial tissues. I picture some central purchasing person not knowing the difference, or some kind of corruption that made them shift to a supplier that didn’t make hand towels.

April 24, 2006 @ 3:54 am | Comment

WHY BRING UP AIR CHINA? AS AN AVIATION GRADUATE EDUCATED IN NORTH AMERICA WHERE I RESIDE, CLEARLY THE ONLY WAY THAT IT WILL WORK IS IF THEY SEEK OUTSIDE HELP. IF YOU LOOK AT TWO OF THE BEST MODELS JUST ACCOUNTING FOR THE COUNTRY OF CHINA ONLY, THE BEST AIRLINES WOULD BE CATHAY PACIFIC AND DRAGONAIR. FOR THOSE WHO DON’T KNOW DRAGONAIR, THEY OPERATES OUT OF HONG KONG INTO ONLY CHINA WHERE CATHAY PACIFIC FLIES EVERYWHERE. IF YOU COMPARE THE MODELS TO AIR CHINA THERE IS JUST NO DOING SO, BECAUSE LOGISTICALLY IT SEEMS LACK OF COMMUNICATION EXISTS AS WELL AS ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE. MIGHT I ALSO POINT OUT A FLAW IS IF YOU LOOK AT MAINTENANCE STANDARDS COMPARING MANY COUNTRIES ONE OF THE POOREST ONES OCCUR WITHIN CHINA. ONE THING I THINK IS ALSO A BIG PROBLEM IS THE FACT AIR CHINAY ARE STILL SUBSIDIZED BY THE GOVERNMENT SOMEWHAT AND FROM BUSINESS PERSPECTIVE TO A CATHAY PACIFIC AND DRAGONAIR WHO ARE FULLY SELF FINANCED THEY ARE TRULY THE ONES WHO KNOW BUSINESS AND CUSTOMERS. IF YOU WANT AN EXCELLENT AIRLINE GO WITH CATHAY PACIFIC AND DRAGONAIR; FOR THE COMFORT, SERVICE, RELIABILITY, AND SAFETY IS THE STANDARD FOR AIRLINES OF CHINA.

June 13, 2006 @ 4:36 am | Comment

My girlfriend (Asian and speaks both Mandaran and Cantonese) and I (only speak English) flew Air China from L.A. to Beijing. We were on a two week escorted tour to visit many locations. We also took 4 internal flights on Air China while touring. After our tour ended, we flew (Air China) to Guangzhou from Shanghai for an additional two weeks. Afterwards, we flew Air China from Guangzhou to Beijing and then back to LA. The annoyances that I experienced is that I get uncomfortable (cannot sleep or rest) on long flights and that English is limited, even the movies were in Mandarin, but, what should I expect for it is Air China and run by Asians for (mainly) Asians. The food on Air China, well, the food on American run airlines is expensive and not worth it and with the Asian food, well, I survived. If I remember and have time and carry on space, I will bring my own food and drink (water) on all future flights (domestic or international). I did experience long wait lines at the Air China counters, but we did leave with all our flights as scheduled. Buying tickets for a domestic flight in China is another experience, but, not speaking the language and relying on my girlfriend, well again I survived. I guess with 1.25 billion people in China, Air China knows what it is doing. We leave again for a month in China this coming November, again flying Air China (out of Boston to all our connecting flights) and I will have no problem flying Air China if all goes as well as the last time. On the plus side, once we are in China, in the end, it is all worth it for the on-ground pleasures we experience in this fantastic country and it people.

July 12, 2006 @ 6:17 am | Comment

hi, all, i,m travelling on AC on the 15th august from london heathrow to beijing and then onto changchun, can anyone give me some advice please? also do i have to pick up my baggage in beijing and rebook it in again to changchun? and i,m taking skis with me, do they come within my baggage allowance? people have told me sports equipment is free, is this true on Air China?

July 27, 2006 @ 1:44 pm | Comment

I believe you need to pick up your suitcase in Beijing to go through custom. I made a mistake one time in the US after flying in from China. I was told not to pick up suitcase in San Francisco and it turned out to be a mistake. Many stuff was broken after it finally arrived the final destination.

You need to check in with AC for ChangChun. By the way, what brings you to ChangChun? Are you going to stay there long? Be sure to visit South Lake and take some pictures.

SKi equippment in summer time in ChangChun? Interesting! I guess you are there to stay till winter. Nothing is free, you will pay for the penalty if the overall weight exceeds the limit.

August 30, 2006 @ 4:04 pm | Comment

Since the Malaysia Airline is fulluy booked for the departure form Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, I end up flying with AC from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing next Monday. Having read the posts by previous flyers of AC, I am kinda worried about the horrible 6 hours flight that I am going to experience. Checking in at the Beijing Airport seems to be a horrible experience for most of the people too. Any advice on how many hours before departure should I check-in my luggage to avoid being late for departure?

September 26, 2006 @ 10:50 am | Comment

Since the Malaysia Airline is fulluy booked for the departure form Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, I end up flying with AC from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing next Monday. Having read the posts by previous flyers of AC, I am kinda worried about the horrible 6 hours flight that I am going to experience. Checking in at the Beijing Airport seems to be a horrible experience for most of the people too. Any advice on how many hours before departure should I check-in my luggage to avoid being late for departure?

September 26, 2006 @ 10:52 am | Comment

An entertaining post, but totally different from my experiences with Air Cina .

I was flying Air China between Shanghai and Beijing this October. Since this was the Saturday before the “Golden Week” National Holiday, I feared total mayhem and chaos, just like you described.

But it was like any other flight I have taken. Maybe 15 minutes waiting at the check in. Some 10 minutes waiting at the security gates.

All the staff was nice, maybe not Singapore Airlines Nice, but not any worse than the British Airways staff.

I also flew from Shanghai to Xian with a domestic carrier, again no problems. I was a bit concerned with this flight as well, as I had purchased the trip on the net, and held no actual paperticket. But I just showed my passport, no questions asked, and I was checked in.

Of course you already know this, but *a lot* changes in three years in China!

To contrast this I could tell you aout my experiences with a certain Norwegian carrier, but that i a post for another forum!

October 17, 2006 @ 5:19 pm | Comment

I flew Air China from Calgary-Guangzhou in August. It was a nightmare. When we arrived in Beijing, because our travel agent did a terrible job of booking, we only had an hour to clear Chinese customs and connect with our flight to Guangzhou. Then we went to the luggage carousel which was labelled Vancouver, but had the wrong flight number, but everyone on the assumed it was ours, being we were on the last flight of the day from Vancouver. And the whole time our luggage was being dumped out onto a carousel labelled Seattle or Los Angeles or something. We finally realized this had our luggage, but unfortunately I had a guitar with me, which was oversized, which meant I had to cross half the terminal to claim it. They didn’t even bring out the oversized luggage on a cart. Absolutely ridiculous. I found my self running back and forth to check every 10 minutes if it had arrived yet. We finally gathered all our things and cleared customs to discover that our gate was on the next floor and our flight was already on last boarding call. And of course the elevator was lined up all the way to Russia, so we had to drag our bags two at a time up the escalator. We finally made it upstairs, and found we had missed our flight. So we rebooked to the last flight to Guangzhou, and we nearly missed that as well because one of our party was held up for half an hour at baggage check in because of a can of bug spray. Then, in all the confusion, they took away her ticket, and she had to go all the way back from the gate and get it back. So we nearly missed our second plane. It was overall a nightmarish experience, almost as bad as all of my terrible American Airlines experiences combined (nah, not quite)

October 30, 2006 @ 10:30 am | Comment

Some people have thin skins. If you come to China put up or shut up and you will have a pleasant and memorable experence. Like the scouts be prepaired. China is China the Middle Kingdom, not everyones cup of tea but I like it warts and all.

July 8, 2008 @ 5:23 pm | Comment

Douglas, no matter what you have to say about China, no airline should treat passengers like this.

July 8, 2008 @ 5:54 pm | Comment

I had a bad experience with the illustrious Cathay Pacific. It was my first international flight and my first flight to China via Hong Kong. I had crashed a scooter the day before and had some open wounds from the crash. But I bandaged them as best as I could and went to the airport. Our 1am flight was delayed 6 hours because of a mechanical problem. They told us it was going to be 2 hours late. But at least it came. So I sat on a plane for 14 hours (I’m tall) with no leg-room. When we landed in Hong Kong we had missed out connecting flight and we directed to a counter to catch the next plane leaving in 45 minutes. When I went to the counter the man pointed me to another, who pointed me to another, and another, etc. etc. etc. Nobody wanted to help us until I walked up to the first guy and started to yell at him at the top of my lungs. We missed the connecting flight to Qingdao – the last one leaving that day. Another three hours later and the Cathay Pacific people FINALLY paid notice to me and help my friend and I get a hotel room, but they refused to let us have our luggage. But we had a hotel room. By this time my foot, which only suffered a small scratch, had become so terribly infected that it was swollen double the size and hurt like hell. I spent the night in a hotel room with no deodorant or toothpaste or clean clothes from my 14 hour flight and 6 hour wait, plus the 3 hour airport shuffle. My foot is fine by I lost confidence in the airline. What I should complain about is like one gentleman said – the ground crew and ticket counter people. How unnerving. My foot required expensive HK medicine and I couldn’t walk for a week. My first experience in China. I consider it festive.

August 26, 2008 @ 9:35 pm | Comment

I’ve flown Cathay many, many times and find them to be among the very best airlines, right up there with Singapore. Your story sounds like a terrible exception.

August 27, 2008 @ 3:36 pm | Comment

“I have had the pleasure of both Air China and China Air flights.”

Then you should know that the latter one is called “China Airlines”. And IMO, their safety record has been ok in the recent years. At least, no one got killed in Okinawa.

October 1, 2008 @ 8:01 pm | Comment

“Iโ€™ve said that the service has improved significantly since I wrote this post.”

Aren’t they a Star Alliance member now?

October 1, 2008 @ 8:06 pm | Comment

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